Curbside Classic: 1981 DeLorean DMC-12 – Failing Upwards

Yes, another DeLorean post. If we go back in time (har har), CC has already had a fair amount of DeLorean-related content. Here’s hoping I can wedge one more in the CCanon and head down down this well-trodden road (“Where we’re going, we don’t need roads,” re-har har), full of facile film references and multiple instances of comic-levels of incompetence, grift, deviousness and entrapment. Fun, in other words.

It is impossible not to mention of at least some of this lore(an). The DMC-12, perhaps more than any car in history, became a legend and has enjoyed a life of second-hand fame that completely overshadowed both its difficult birth and its intrinsic qualities. And they do exist.

I mean, just look at this thing! I’m not usually moved all that much by wedge-shaped sports cars of the ’70s, but there are notable exceptions. The Maserati Khamsin, the Dino 208/308 GT4 and the BMW M1 come to mind. And certainly the DeLorean must be added to the list. Giugiaro’s excellent work, thankfully, was neither improperly “updated” nor altered in any significant way, despite the numerous changes that the car underwent between the design being set in 1975 and production getting going six years later.

Esthetics aside, what other qualities could be attributed to the DMC-12? Well, the car’s dynamics are supposed to be pretty decent, thanks to the extensive involvement of Lotus in the chassis design. And it is said that visibility is very good and the cabin is a comfortable place to be, even for very tall people.

Speaking of which, here’s the best I could do with our feature car. I could not access the passenger window for a better shot, but at least we can glean that this is an automatic and that the Back to the Future theme continues inside with that 88mph box on the dash. The satnav almost looks like it belongs there. The fit and finish of the rest of the dash, however, looks rather poor, as per the car’s reputation (and we’re already running out of positive things to say about the DMC-12).

However, as luck would have it, this was not my first DeLorean encounter. I had already photographed one in France back in 2017 — also a 1981 model with the fuel filler flap at the base of the windscreen, like the Tokyo car. And as we can see, its butterfly doors were wide open. I took a few photos, but never got round to do anything with them. Almost as if I had an inkling I might need a front shot of a DMC-12 sometime in the future…

There were a number of differences between the French car and the Japanese one, chief among which was the fact that this one is a manual. And given how its doors were left ajar, a decent interior photo was not just possible, but almost inevitable.

The Giugiaro design looks even cleaner without the optional black accent stripe. This French example also lacks any movie-related paraphernalia that some of these cars have been festooned with. The Tokyo car has a mild case of this particular malady — nothing too outrageous, but that California “Outtatime” plate is just so cliché. But then, the whole car is a accumulation of clichés, in a way.

Cliché number one: the Genius Executive and his Grand Design. John Z. DeLorean was quite the salesman, but his creation was a bit too ambitious, woefully undercapitalized and technologically half-baked. He knew that the only possible niche he could aim for was the exotic sports car. Prices could be high and production numbers low. But the initial De Lorean mock-up was based on a plastic foam chassis — a technology that soon proved incapable of handling the job.

Another major technical hurdle was that DeLorean initially planned to use a centrally-mounted Citroën twin-rotor engine, but those were phased out almost as soon as he had selected it. A number of other power plants were tried out, but in the end, the DMC-12 was released with the disappointing PRV engine mounted behind the rear wheels. Not that it was that horrible (though it was not that great either, far from it), but it just wasn’t up to the task. With only 130hp, the fuel-injected 2.8 litre V6 was adequate when pulling a Renault 30 through the French countryside, but it lacked heart in pushing the DMC-12’s not-exactly-featherweight body on American interstates. Renault knew this, so when they stuck the same engine in the Alpine A310, they turbocharged it. DeLorean did not, except on a couple of test cars. Not a wise decision, especially for a car whose US MRSP was pretty damn close to a Porsche 911.

Cliché number two: the knight in shining armour. DeLorean tried to get Porsche to re-engineer the DMC-12: after all, it was a rear-engined sports car, so why not ask the best in the business? Porsche said they needed four years and a chunk of cash. DeLorean had neither the time nor the dough, but he got Colin Chapman to help instead. Lotus did re-engineer the chassis completely, but à la Chapman, with a backbone chassis similar in some ways to the Esprit. Which was fine, but (re-)development time was too tight to ensure the car would be halfway decently made.

Which brings us to cliché number three: big government waltzes in with bright ideas. DeLorean was looking for a place to build the car. Wild ideas were thrown about, but someone in the British government heard about the project and made DeLorean an offer he couldn’t refuse: going halfsies (actually two-thirds / one third) on the construction of the plant to finally get production started. One catch was that this all had to take place in Northern Ireland, which had no carmaking tradition (and was pretty ravaged in general in those dark days). Cherry on top: the deal was signed by the Callaghan government, but its implementation took place under Margaret Thatcher, who would certainly not have devised such a scheme in the first place.

The cars that emerged from the Belfast factory were initially atrocious, but after a lot of work, revising and additional training, the quality of the DMC-12 rose to a mediocre British-Leyland-esque standard. There were multiple issues that had more to do with the design, and were thus difficult to address. For example, the stainless steel body was a good PR idea, but in practice it was a pain to manufacture and fix, and would always remain thus. A plague of other gremlins, some due to the lack of specialized workforce and others due to the car’s rushed development (even though it took six years to gestate) befell the DeLorean, even as the global economy was in turmoil.

“Heeeeeeere’s Johnnies!”


Even with the UK government’s generosity, John Z. still had to find more ways to keep money flowing in — initially to launch production, but soon after to keep the lights on despite sagging sales. This included anything from the infamous FBI cocaine sting to fleecing the rich and famous. Johnny Carson got a car out of the half-million dollars he invested, at least. Alas, because it was an early model with the Ducellier alternator that could not handle the DMC-12’s numerous peripherals, Carson was left stranded on California highways (including once stuck inside the DeLorean, apparently) one time too many. He went back to Benzes and Corvettes soon enough. You can fool some people sometimes…

You’ve got to hand it to the DMC-12: not many cars have managed to illustrate the triumph of style and PR over reason like this one. John Z. DeLorean was acquitted and the car became such an icon that over two thirds of the 9000-odd units made are still around. And they’re now worth more than a 40-year-old Porsche 911 or Corvette. Owning one of these now makes actual sense as an investment. DMC-12 times 55 lbs of coke minus 88mph to the power of 130hp over 4 decades equals about US$45k. Fuzzy math? Sure. Definitely worth more than the sum of its parts. Deadly Sin? Yes, a thousand times yes. The very definition of one. But what a ride!


Related posts:


Automotive History: John Z. DeLorean, The BMW Turbo And The Birth Of The DeLorean, by Don Andreina

Curbside Classic: 1982 DeLorean – Avoiding The Distractions, by Jason Shafer

Curbside Classic: DeLorean – Ahead To The Future, by Mike George

Vintage Review: 1981 DeLorean – The Future Didn’t Quite Turn Out As Planned, by GN

Vintage Ad: 1982 DeLorean – Live The Dream, by Perry Shoar

Contributor Editorial: DeLorean Illustrated Detroit’s Myopic Thinking, by Mike S.

Curbside Newsstand – Great Scott! Brand New DeLorean DMC-12s Could Roll Off The Assembly Line As Early As Next Year, by Edward Snitkoff

Car Show Outtake: Three DeLorean DMC-12s But Just One Concorde, by Roger Carr

Curbside Capsule: 1981 DeLorean DMC-12 – Living The Dream, by Joseph Dennis

eBay Find: 1982 DeLorean DMC-12 – Contractual Obligations, by Geraldo Solis

Road Trip Outtake: 1981-83 DeLorean DMC-12 – Forward Into The Past!, by Ed Stembridge

“Why Yes, You Can Mirror Polish a DeLorean”, by Mike Butts

Cohort Outtake: Two American Independent Start-Ups Sharing An Intimate Moment, by PN

CC Wordless Outtake: 1981 DeLorean DMC-12 – Yes Indeedy, by Mr Tactful